Steeple Aston Inclosures – a brief resume
Until around the turn of the 1700's most farming was carried out jointly between the various landowners and tenants, using a system of crop rotation usually based on large open fields farmed under common management.
The "Three Field" system was based on one common field for arable farming, another for dairy farming and one laid fallow. The "Two Field" system was a variation on this, involving less rotation and less fallow land. Steeple Aston operated the Two Field system. Each farmer had a strip or strips of land on these fields, and some also had "rights of common" over meadows, heath and pasture, subject to the agreement of the landowner, who was usually the Lord of the Manor or the Church. This "common" land, as it became known, was not owned by the public (as is often thought) but was land owned privately but subject to "rights of common", for joint owners or tenants to graze their animals or grow crops. This was a very difficult system to administer, hard to farm, and was often uneconomic due to the small areas of land involved.
Inclosures of farming land were introduced in many areas of England from mid and late 1700's - but did not apply everywhere. "Inclosure" within the meaning of the various Acts (of which there were literally thousands throughout the country) was initially undertaken with the consent of the landowners who had rights over the land. Sometimes, sufficient owners consented to virtually force any reluctant owners to agree.
Other Inclosures, generally those which were complicated were undertaken by a third party - an Inclosures Commission. The Commissioners were appointed, at a fee, to survey all the available land (in the old measurements of "rods, poles and perches") and manage the land exchanges and resolve disputes. Also (importantly) to measure accurately all the newly defined areas "awarded" to each landowner and record the acreage details and the locations, both in a document (the "Award" and on a Map. These documents were submitted to Parliament for approval and an Act was passed in respect of each area formalising the contents of the Award and Map.
Inclosure involved the amalgamation of the various pieces of land under each person's control. Land was exchanged by mutual consent, and the new areas were enclosed by hedges and sometime ditches, or even both, in order to denote the now exclusive and private occupation by the new owners. The new landowners were assured of easy access to their land which some had not enjoyed previously. Landowners could now manage their own crop rotation, but their crops were safe from straying sheep and cattle, and could be harvested without interference or disputes over access to their crop.
Two very important products of the Inclosures were the boundary hedges and ditches, Some of these have been grubbed out and filled in by successive owners, especially those using modern farming methods. Fortunately, however, many are still in existence today and are highly prized by conservationists. Another less fortunate result was the reduction in farm accommodation needed by the now centralised landowners. Farmers who had acquired land with buildings on each were able to knock down some or all of the buildings on one, and make better use of those that remained. This often led to the labouring occupants of the farm cottages being homeless, and caused displaced labourers and their families to travel to other villages looking for food, homes and work. This placed a burden upon the parishes where they arrived, and Steeple Aston is recorded as having applied for "Poor Relief" to lessen the impact of having to feed and care for many such displaced persons.
Steeple Aston's Inclosure took place in 1766. The Steeple Aston Award, with its Map, was signed, sealed and delivered in 1767. With the coming of the Inclosures, the local "open field" system was over.
Inclosure documents were the first accurate, indisputable records of private land ownership ever available and are still called for in civil court cases, even today. The Awards and Maps clearly defined the then "new" fields, and can still be used today to determine boundaries, resolve ownership disputes, and prove the ages of existing hedges and ditches. The maps were expensive and laborious to produce, being handwritten in copperplate on parchment. A copy was taken for Parliamentary approval and some are lodged with the House of Lords library. One of the very few copies made would usually have been passed to the local clergy for safe keeping.
The amount of land which was Inclosed by 1900 amounted to over six million acres, two-thirds of which was arable and about a third was commons and "waste" lands such as marshes and moorland. Since the Inclosures, the poor are generally believed (whether correctly or not) to have suffered loss of access to some common and waste land which was included in the Inclosures and finished up in private ownership.
The original Award and Map now held in the Steeple Aston Village Archive were originally passed to the Reverend John Noel, whose successors presumably passed it down until it was eventually lodged with the local registrar, a Mr Hancocks. After his death some of his records were no longer required and were destroyed. Fortunately the Award and Map were saved and kept safely, until in due course they were donated to the Archive.
In need of restoration, the original Map cannot be displayed at this time. However, a good (digital) photocopy of the Map has been taken and is identical in all respects to the original, (apart from being on paper rather than on parchment!). Copies of this map are available from the Archive, and are also available on CD Rom.
We are most grateful to those involved in the preservation of these precious documents and their donation to the Archive. The original Award consists of 25 sheets of parchment, in copperplate handwriting, and bears numerous seals, stamps and signatures. It is too delicate to be exhibited and is on restricted viewing only. However, the late Mr. Victor Side, a Steeple Aston resident and Archive Trustee, voluntarily transcribed the entire Award word for word, line for line and exactly as written. So the details of the whole Award are now available to everyone (see right column to download the transcription).
Click the link below to download a complete transcription of the Steeple Aston Inclosures Award (2MB PDF file - Adobe Acrobat required)